Technostress: are employees running out of battery life?


Technology can enable employees to work on anything, anytime, anywhere. But is over-exposure to ever-changing systems and updates creating a new breed of “technostress” sufferers? Cath Everett looks at the evidence. 

When you think about technology, do you come up with positive words such as efficiency, effectiveness and productivity? Or are you more likely to plump for terms like frustration, stress, impaired performance – and even addiction?

Because, according to the latest research, it is those very words that describe technology’s shadow side, a phenomenon that few of us have actively considered to date.

An article, The Dark Side of Information Technology, published in December 2014 by the Sloan Management Review claims that “the very qualities that make IT useful – reliability, portability, user-friendliness and fast processing – may also be undermining employee productivity, innovation and wellbeing”.

Who would have thought it? But it actually makes perfect sense. People are constantly being bombarded with queries and information from endless different sources, whether it is emails, Twitter or direct messaging – and are expected to respond instantaneously.

Always on or cannot switch off?

The problem with having to relentlessly multitask in this way is that it inevitably has an impact on people’s work-life balance and general wellbeing. Being “always on”, to use the relevant IT jargon, means you simply cannot switch off and relax.

Just to fan the flames, a lot of workers are also bombarded with seemingly constant changes and upgrades to the multifarious IT systems that they use every day, meaning that as soon as they get a handle on them, they are replaced with something new.

So bad has the situation become, in fact, that psychologists have coined a new phrase for this hitherto little talked-about form of anxiety – “technostress”.

And according to the “Dark Side” report, based on 14 separate studies undertaken between 2007 and 2014, seven out of 10 of us are suffering from at least one or two symptoms of it.

Unfortunately, says Jonathon Hogg, people and operations expert at management consultancy PA Consulting Group, the upshot of technostress in behavioural terms is that people often become much more impatient, intolerant and even demonstrate “an inability to think clearly due to a constant sense of urgency”.

Quantity over quality

To make matters worse, the transactional nature of many of these communications means that staff frequently spend less time investing in quality business relationships, and more time building large networks of superficial contacts instead.

And while they may appear to be highly productive by responding to lots of things really quickly, in reality, they are just being distracted and not focusing on the task in hand.

“So there’s a frenzy of communication, but people aren’t necessarily being as productive as the business would like,” explains Hogg. “It doesn’t necessarily lead to creativity either as people simply don’t have the space to reflect and think.”

At the far end of the scale though, all of this can end up tipping into downright addiction. Scarily, the report quoted a study of organisational email users that found that 46% of them exhibited medium-to-high addictive symptoms.

Techno addiction

As one of the report’s authors, Monideepa Tarafdar, professor of information systems at Lancaster University’s Management School, points out: “This means that they’re not able to leave the technology alone and, over time, start upping the dosage to satisfy their desire for stimulation. It’s a form of behavioural addiction, but it’s a growing pattern.”

The problem for HR, of course, is that, not only are there implications in terms of general staff wellbeing, but people can also start behaving recklessly – missing deadlines as they are too busy messing around with technology or downloading unauthorised software in a bid to make themselves more efficient.

This leads us onto yet another challenge in the shape of technology misuse. While misuse is, in the vast majority of cases, accidental, it can still result in information security incidents that have serious, and costly, repercussions for the organisation.

Examples include opening rogue email attachments. Or someone who is stressed and overworked doing something silly like cc-ing in all of their external contacts by mistake when sending out confidential, internal documents.

How to tackle it

So what can HR do about this increase in technostress? According to Hogg, the situation is that, while there is already been plenty of research to show that the problem exists, it has not particularly filtered down to the business community as yet.

“My sense is that HR isn’t as tech-savvy as it could be,” he says. “So a lot of people aren’t necessarily on top of the impact across the workforce, which means they probably don’t have appropriate strategies and policies in place.”

As a result, Hogg believes that the time is now ripe for HR “to step up and tackle the issue head on”, even if it can be a difficult one to spot.

The “Dark Side” report recommends starting with a formal assessment of the extent of technostress and addiction in order to understand how pervasive the problem is.

As tricky as this can be to measure, one approach is to work with IT leaders to create audit exercises in order to measure and monitor the impact on a regular basis.

The second step is to introduce staff wellbeing and engagement programmes, as both technostress and addiction undoubtedly have a negative impact on things like job satisfaction and work-life balance.

At the very least, occupational health policies should be updated in order to limit or prevent IT use after working hours or during holidays, for example, and to put some boundaries around it all.

This could pay off financially too, due to a proven link between stress and fraud. It turns out that the people who are often seen as model workers – those who have been at the organisation for a long time and work long hours – are, in fact, the most likely to ignore policies or steal money.

Somewhat controversially, using modern analytics technology to analyse and predict behaviour, you can even create profiles of people based on their personality traits and work out who is most likely to get up to what.

But that really would be the dark side of IT.

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